The JetBlue pilot whose erratic behavior – including shouting, banging on the cockpit door, and running down the aisle yelling that the plane was going to crash – led the co-pilot to lock him out of the cockpit mid-flight on Tuesday is a seasoned airline pilot who has had a passion for flying since he was in college.
Airline officials characterize the incident as a "medical emergency;" outside observers have called it a panic attack. The actual reason for pilot Clayton Osbon's strange outburst, however, remains a mystery, at least to the public.
"He started screaming about Al Qaeda and possibly a bomb on the plane and Iraq and Iran and about how we were all going down," passenger Gabriel Schonzeit, who was sitting in the third row, told the Amarillo Globe-News.
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On Wednesday, Mr. Osbon, a 12-year pilot for JetBlue, was charged with “interfering with crew-member instructions” and remains in a medical facility in Amarillo, Texas, where the co-pilot landed the Las Vegas-bound plane, says a JetBlue spokesman. JetBlue also suspended him from flying "pending further investigation," CNN reported Wednesday.
JetBlue's chief executive officer, Dave Barger, has described Osbon a “consummate professional” with no history of trouble.
"What happened at altitude is we had a medical situation," Mr. Barger told NBC's "Today" show on Wednesday. Then, he added, "It became a security situation."
The flight's co-pilot reportedly found Captain Osbon's behavior to be erratic during the flight, and he coaxed Osbon to consult with other crew on board – then locked him out of the cockpit and later made the unscheduled landing with the aid of another pilot who was traveling on the flight. At least five passengers held down the struggling Osbon on the floor.
The account does not jibe with anything that is publicly known about Osbon, a seasoned veteran with a flying career dating back to 1989. Osbon, a resident of Richmond Hill, Ga., an affluent community about 20 minutes southwest of Savannah, Ga., was apparently among the best of the best to fly JetBlue's big jets. A "flight standards captain," he held a bachelor's of science degree in aeronautical physics and flight ratings from Hawthorne College and Carnegie Mellon University, according to a magazine that profiled Osbon last year.
A profile published in Richmond Hill Reflections, a glossy magazine featuring the people and homes of individuals from the well-heeled community, portrays a man devoted to flying, family, and fun – and who loves animals and playing Wii bowling.
A native of Milwaukee, Osbon began pursuing a career as an airline pilot in about 1986, the article says, in part because he could not afford to pursue a post-graduate degree. At one point, he considered joining the Navy in the hopes of flying F-14s off carrier decks – and further in the future maybe joining the astronaut training program – but the Navy rejected him, it recounts.
“They weren’t issuing any waivers, at the time, for eyesight, and they threw me out on the physical – on the seventh stage – for a slight astigmatism in my right eye," Osbon told writer Christine S. Lucas, who interviewed him. "That broke my heart a little bit.”
At the time of the interview, Osbon was 47, and he confessed to the reporter that at least some of his desire to join the Navy had to do with seeing the 1986 movie "Top Gun," which glorified the exciting life and heroism of carrier pilots.
Instead, Osbon "remained a civilian and continued flight instructing," Ms. Lucas wrote in her article, including flying 35 types of general aviation aircraft and accumulating 18,000 hours in the cockpit. In January 1994, Osbon was hired by private jet operator NetJets, where he flew advanced jets, including the Gulfstream IV, around the world, living abroad in Lisbon, Portugal, and Lyon, France.
“Gulfstream pilots are very proud to fly Gulfstreams,” Osbon explained to Lucas. “When they get to that level in their career – when they are flying Gulfstreams – they feel good about themselves.”
“It’s fun to fly,” Osbon continued, according to the article. “If you’re going to finish your career or get to the top of the ladder as a corporate pilot, Gulfstream would be one of those plateaus. You’d say to yourself, ‘I’ve arrived.’ ”
JetBlue's first commercial flight came in February 2000. Three months later, Osbon was hired to fly the company's Airbus 320 and regularly flies out of John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York, Osbon told the writer.
On his personal time, Osbon flies an L-4 Grasshopper up and down the Georgia coast, the article notes. The plane helps him connect with the community. Once a month he enjoys a pilot’s pancake breakfast with other pilots at his local hanger.
Osbon told the interviewer that he was working on a leadership course, with plans to one day be a motivational speaker.
“Putting it down on eight and a half by eleven sheets of paper,” he says. “It starts with a greater enhanced knowledge of one’s being…. You know, I’d like to think the world is more than just getting up in the morning, making a cup of coffee, going to work, coming home, kissing your wife good-night and going to bed.”
Right now, however, he's under the watchful eye of agents of the Federal Bureau of Investigation at an undisclosed medical facility in Amarillo, the JetBlue spokesman said. The charges reported to have been levied against him could cost him his profession.
"There are several different sides to every story. Just keep that in mind," Osbon's wife, Connye Osbon, told ABCNews.com.
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